Sure, every place is fucked up in some regard. Every place has a story of awfulness in its past or present. But some places are notoriously backwards, and if you’re from one of them, you might carry the irreconcilable tension of loving and loathing it for life. Even when you move away. Especially when you move away.
Hi, I’m from the South and I can never decide how I feel about it. Nice to meet y’all. I often describe my feelings toward it thusly: I feel about the South the way I feel about a lot of ex-boyfriends. I sure like ‘em better when they’re far away. Ha-cha-cha-cha. Surprise, though: Moving away has not made this any easier to sort out. In some ways, it has made it worse, because the longer I’m gone, the more I see how much I was shaped by both where I’m from and my opposition to it.
The problem with being from the South it’s got legit good shit going on: It’s this quaint, romantic-as-hell place with old traditions, beautiful literature. Can we take one sec to savor this one tiny paragraph from Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Cafe please?
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all the other places in the world.
Holla. Then there are all the heavenly meat and threes and the biscuits, my god the biscuits. And there’s all the front porches and the Spanish moss on the trees, and the old port cities, and the little shacks just past the silo in the middle of nowhere that sell blackened catfish and cornbread and fried okra. And the friendliness! The goddamn friendliness down South will slay you. What’s not to love?
Oh, you know, the deeply entrenched racism, homophobia, small-minded tribalism? The slow, aching pace. The fear of change? Whiteness? Shit priorities? General fuckery. When Tennessee is in the news, it’s almost never because it’s a chill hang, you know? It’s because they’re drug-testing welfare applicants or criminalizing abortion. Sure, the restaurants have gotten extraordinarily better. But shit is still embarrassing, all told.
I don’t know how to reconcile it. I miss parts of the South but it will always make me cringe a little to be from that sometimes lonesome, sad place. Not that Los Angeles is even close to perfect, but bare minimum, it’s the most diverse place I’ve ever lived, and it continues to upend all my notions of how humanity can manifest, in complex, unexpected ways that light my sheltered little brain up. That never happened where I’m from, because there were only a limited number of acceptable ways to be, and if you didn’t fit them, you quickly made yourself look like you did. It’s changing, to be sure, but patience has never been my strong suit.
I also know that plenty of people who live in the South still are not at all part of the problem—they’ve done something I couldn’t: They stayed and routinely work to improve the conditions, to be more inclusive, to educate, to expand, to uplift. And I’m reminded of them reading Ashley C. Ford’s moving piece about still loving Indiana as a queer woman. Ford, who escaped to NYC as so many people from small towns do, went back to Indiana for a friend’s wedding just after Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, aka, the Act for People Who Love Hatin’ and Discriminatin’. Ford writes:
I tried to put the news of my mind as I watched my friends celebrate their love. It wasn’t lost on me that the black bride and white groom would have had their own trouble finding a venue, catering, and a pastor to preside over their wedding only fifty years ago—less in some places. My table buzzed with conversation about the bill. Another guest said, “Imagine if there was a LGBT person here tonight, how they would feel about this backwards-ass bill.”
In this case, the hypothetical was real. I am queer. But as I was sitting at this wedding, surrounded by love, joy and celebration, I felt my self-righteous loathing fall away from me. These people around me—the ones lamenting the state of this bill, and discussing how they were fighting back—they were Indiana. Not Mike Pence, not this bill. And I couldn’t believe I’d momentarily forgotten how being from Indiana actually got me here.
Ford muses on her upbringing and struggle to reconcile her bisexuality under her grandmother’s conservative, watchful eye, and how to take comments from some of her first lovers that she would always be “too wild” for a place like Indiana. Coming out was gradual, and began with a move to nearby Indianapolis, but she eventually went full coastal.
But it’s never as simple as merely rejecting a place that couldn’t hold all of you, and Ford rejects the suggestion that she is beyond where she is from or in some way better. Ultimately, she did find a community of acceptance for herself in Indiana, even if she eventually left it. “I feel like I lived two lives in Indiana: one that got me, and one I never gave the chance to get me,” she writes.
For those who have the constitution for it, there’s a solid argument to staying in the place you’re from and fighting for the change you want to see, rather than skipping town and leaving the work to others. But even so, Ford makes a really salient point about how well-meaning people inside and out of Indiana are responding to the Act’s passage and how they should reconsider boycotts:
I don’t know every Hoosier, but I can’t find one who supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Everyone I know—myself included—has been speaking out, marching, letter-writing, doing whatever we can think of to get this bill repealed or tweaked. (There was some progress today, but not enough.) Meanwhile, artists, writers and performers from all over are pulling out of commitments to come to Indiana. “I can’t morally support Indiana with money, and money is the only thing that talks,” they say.
A little research—just a tiny bit—would show that Mike Pence doesn’t care about money. He’s voted for the RFRA against the wishes of the people who funded his campaign. Ultimately, boycotting Indiana means boycotting the people. Financially and culturally starving a state does not change the minds of the people, even if it does change the minds of the government. Art and media changes minds—at least mine. My thoughts were pretty much in line with the bigoted ones of my church before I stayed up late and watched a Made-for-MTV movie about Matthew Shepard, the 21-year old gay student in Wyoming who was beaten, burned and left to die. I cried all through the movie, the night, and into the next day at school. After that, I couldn’t imagine making fun of someone who was gay. I was twelve years old when I connected the dots. Governor Mike Pence is much older.
First, Mike Pence might not care about money, but the owners of that terrible Indiana pizzeria who immediately made good on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by announcing they would refuse to cater an hypothetical gay weddings do. They just got funded over a half a million dollars from right-wing gargoyle types.
Second, I gotta say, it’s not age that makes someone connect the dots of bigotry to their human cost—it’s character, or openness, or at least an eye-opening, empathy-engendering moment that you let change you. That is what it takes to let people be, and not fuck with their rights or access to resources. I cannot remember what made me recoil at the first instance of racist drivel I heard as a child from someone in my family (which I heard very early on), only that for whatever reason, it sounded needlessly mean-spirited. It went against the basic idea of treating people the same, which I had also heard. Combined with so many other things I wanted out of life, it was just one more thing that made it hard to be in the South and easy to leave. That doesn’t make me a saint or anything, just someone who didn’t feel right where I was for a lot of reasons, but at the most basic, it was a desire to be somewhere that I could be left the fuck alone for a change.
Still, while Ford’s piece is, in part, a cry of #notallHoosiers, it’s also a reminder to those of us who chose to bail on our hometowns that leaving is not necessarily brave; sometimes it’s just easy. Unfortunately, it’s sticking around and advocating that effects real change, because that’s the only chance some backwards hometowns will ever have to catch up.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.